The absurdity of PSC's 'avian mortality study'

Commission staff adds expensive requirement to solar farm project without considering the cost or whether a bird-death problem even exists

By MICHAEL FLAHERTY | February 28, 2019

Life isn’t easy for utilities these days.

On the one hand, they’re being pushed to generate more electricity from renewable sources. On the other, they’re required to keep down costs for consumers, a real concern considering new “utility scale” solar and wind farms can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build.

Caught in the middle are state regulators and their staff, who must balance these needs and demands. Sometimes the battles get heated. Sometimes they get plain goofy.

Consider the proposal by two Wisconsin utilities and Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources to build the Two Creeks solar farm next to NextEra’s Point Beach Nuclear Plant on the shores of Lake Michigan — and an even larger Badger Hollow project in southwestern Wisconsin with another partner.

The two projects, shared by Milwaukee-based WEC Energy Group and Madison-based MGE, are part of ambitious goals by all of the state’s utilities to eventually shut down coal-fired power plants in favor of renewable energy. But that won’t be easy or cheap.

To build these projects, the state’s three-member Public Service Commission must study the necessity, impact and cost of projects, including how customers will pay for them. The PSC’s approval or rejection can pit environmentalists against consumer groups wary of project price tags, or utilities against groups that favor solar but oppose the power lines to deliver their electricity to customers.

And at times, the commission seems to be at odds with its own staff, for which costs apparently don’t matter when it recommends expensive added requirements for projects.

In the case of the solar projects, the PSC staff testified in January that if the utilities want to build the solar farms, they must conduct an “avian mortality study.” The study, estimated to cost $200,000 to $400,000 a year for unspecified numbers of years for Two Creeks alone, would determine whether birds might mistake the solar farm’s reflective panels for a lake, fly into them and crash to their deaths.

Is this a real problem? No, it turns out.

The PSC staff testified that despite the fact they have no evidence that this might be a problem here, the study should be required because the PSC doesn’t have one right now.

“The purpose of this post-construction mortality study methodology is to address this deficiency in the literature,’’ testified Stacy Schumacher, one of the PSC’s staff power plant siting experts. “Understanding any impacts this project may have on avian mortality could lead to more informed siting … or support the assertion that there are not expected to be any significant impacts to resources.”  

Got that?

In other words, utilities — ultimately, their customers — would be required to spend upwards of a million dollars over the years to prove that a problem likely does not exist.

To be sure, there is some evidence of a “lake effect” in the deserts of the Southwest, where birds searching for scarce water occasionally have mistaken solar panels for lakes and crashed into them. But the numbers are so small that they haven’t been calculated and reported. By contrast, federal studies presented to the PSC showed buildings — especially glass buildings — kill 550 million birds a year, pesticides kill 67 million and domestic cats kill another 10 million.

The PSC staff testified it did not predict “avian death” might be a problem in Wisconsin — a state with 15,000 lakes, 12,000 rivers and streams, bordered on three sides by two Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

But it would be nice to have a study, right? Well, that’s already happening.

NextEra testified it is participating in a “lake effect” study with the U.S. Geological Survey in the Southwest and both projects already include a Wildlife Response and Reporting System to monitor and record the deaths of wildlife, including birds for the Wisconsin project.

In fact, solar farms might actually improve life for birds.

While critics of the projects have protested that the huge fenced-in solar farms will disturb, even threaten, wildlife, not everyone agrees. In fact, the Audubon Society — the world’s foremost advocate for the protection of bird habitats — has endorsed solar farms.

Audubon Minnesota three years ago partnered with the state’s utilities to use solar farm projects as spaces to plant native grasses and wildflowers to provide new habitat for threatened bird species, cover for insects that birds feed upon and protected, pesticide-free spaces for pollinating bees, which farmers heartily welcomed.  

(The Audubon Society, however, warns that not all solar projects are good for birds. It opposes “thermal solar” facilities, which use thousands of mirrors to focus the sun’s heat on a central tower to produce steam-generated electricity. The reason is that birds flying too close to the towers or chasing insects attracted by the mirrors’ reflected light can burst into flames — 6,000 at one site in one year.)

The Two Creeks photovoltaic solar farm alone would sport 1,000 acres of solar panels in 150 rows, six feet wide, six feet high and nearly a football field in length. The panels would provide shade for young chicks and protection from aerial predators — and the grass between the panels and around the entire 1,800-acre, fenced-in site would provide permanent, undisturbed nesting habitat. 

Ironically, both projects would be built on land now devoted to row crops and alfalfa, which offer lousy nesting habitat, as most farmers and hunters know.  Corn and soybeans provide no spring cover. And while alfalfa’s lush growth is tempting nesting habitat, it can be a death trap when early-season hay harvesting can result in the nests, eggs and chicks being chopped and baled along with hay for cattle feed.

Finally, what’s perhaps oddest about the PSC staff requirement for an “avian mortality study” is that the cost of the study was not even considered.  

The administrative law judge hearing testimony in January for the Two Creeks application questioned the study cost estimate by NextEra’s environmental expert of $200,000 to $400,000 per year. But the PSC staff admitted they didn’t question the estimate because they hadn’t even looked into cost and it wasn’t their job to do so.  

At the hearing, NextEra attorney Eric Callisto, former chief of staff to the PSC chairman under former Gov. Jim Doyle, questioned why — or how — the PSC staff could ignore the cost of its requirements when, in the end, the commission could reject a project because it costs too much.

“Should the commission entertain any condition regardless of cost?’’ he asked. “If commission staff recommended that there be an armed guard at the gate to each of the solar facilities, do you think it would be appropriate for the commission to consider the cost of that?”

“As you sit here, you have no evidence as to whether or not a $200,000-a-year cost would tank this project, do you?” Callisto queried the PSC’s Schumacher.

 “I do not have any understanding of the margins of the cost of this project,” she responded

Ultimately, it will be up to the commission’s three members — two appointed by former Gov. Scott Walker with an “open for business” mission — to decide whether to include the study requirement. The PSC was scheduled to consider the project application on March 14, but the decision was postponed.

Michael Flaherty is president of Flaherty & Associates, a public policy strategic communications firm in Madison.